Abortion ruling at 25 still divisive But for most, the legacy is ambiguous

January 18, 1998|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

On a morning 25 years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed abortion to be a woman's right. Some Americans naively thought that settled the issue.

Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case titled Roe vs. Wade, the intense, emotional dispute over abortion still has such power that it can swing elections, provoke violence and doom Supreme Court nominations.

What advocates on both sides of the issue can agree to is that Roe vs. Wade has had a profound effect on Americans.

Not surprisingly, they disagree on what the effect is.

Wanda Franz, National Right to Life Committee president, says the Roe decision promoted promiscuity, lowered the value of life and undermined responsibility.

"Abortion is not a gift or a benefit for women. It's a gift for predatory men," Franz says. "Women have lost a great deal in terms of respect. Men are not ready for the responsibility and women do what they think they should do: Get rid of the problem."

But Claire Moses, chair of the Department of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, says the freedom to have an abortion, along with better contraception, has changed how society values women and how women view themselves.

"Women didn't have aspirations for autonomy before 1973," Moses says. "They couldn't make long-term commitments to jobs or education.

"Roe," Moses says, "was the end of certain kind of fatalism about your life being out of your control."

In 1973, the issue seemed plain: women's rights vs. fetal rights. The answer, many thought, would have to be absolute. Roe would stand or it would be overturned.

But a generation of women has grown up never knowing a time when abortion was illegal. And the debate over the issue now has many nuances.

The two sides clash over issues that weren't under discussion 25 years ago: late-term abortion methods, waiting periods for patients, required counseling on abortion alternatives.

More women -- both Republican and Democratic -- have been elected to office and have brought new perspectives to abortion laws.

Technology has advanced. Routine sonograms allow doctors to locate a smaller fetus and perform abortions earlier in pregnancy. But the sonograms also may make the decision more difficult for women who can see the shape.

Doctors today offer women "morning-after" pills for use as emergency contraception. The drugs RU-486 and methotrexate -- though not yet widely used -- offer women the chance to end pregnancies at home instead of on a surgical table.

Both sides have softened their images from the unyielding stances they took in the first years after Roe. Abortion-rights activists, instead of limiting their focus to women's rights, talk about making abortion "less necessary." Anti-abortion groups, instead of focusing solely on the rights of the unborn, discuss supporting desperate women through their pregnancies. But as the debate has evolved, clinics have been blocked and bombed -- though mainstream anti-abortion groups strongly denounce the use of violence. Five people, including two doctors, who worked at clinics have been shot and killed.

Much has changed. But for activists on both sides of the issue, the central debate is no closer to being settled.

"It's very hard to find common ground," Franz says, "when you're talking about life and death."

Forty-three percent of American women will have had an abortion by age 45, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which collects data on women's health issues.

After 25 years, polls continue to show that most Americans believe abortion should be legal without government interference. But the surveys also find that Americans are not comfortable with abortion as an unlimited right.

The National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago, has found between 80 and 90 percent of respondents in polls going back to 1972 believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape, when the fetus is defective, or if the mother's health is in danger.

The numbers begin to fall off, however, says the center's Tom W. Smith, when the questions are refined and add details: Under any circumstances should abortion be legal? Late in pregnancy? For minors? If the woman is poor? If she's single? If she's married and doesn't want more children?

"For the last 20 years, the majority have always been in the middle position," Smith says. "They support the right to abortion. But the things that bother real people are that abortions are too easy and too easily opted for.

"The average American believes that there is a true conflict of basic rights: Women have rights, but the fetus also has rights," Smith says. "They want to strike a balance."

They also would not support a return to the days when abortion was legal only in rare cases, he says. "Given the fact that attitudes are very stable and the arguments have been out there for some time, I don't see anything changing the balance of political power. The balance of power is pretty well fixed in terms of public opinion."

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